Question for friends, family of teen: `Why?'

Student: Many mourning his death struggle to reconcile the talented athlete they knew with the youth who robbed a liquor store.

March 15, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon and Joe Nawrozki | Stephanie Desmon and Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The kids of Turners Station looked up to the Derrick Breedlove they knew - the football star with the winning smile and the full ride to college, the guy who wrote poems to the pretty girls in school, the high school senior with one foot out of their hardscrabble neighborhood.

They didn't know there was another Derrick Breedlove - the one who, instead of sitting in class Wednesday morning at Dundalk High School, died on the floor of a Holabird Avenue liquor store, a paper bag of money in one hand, a pellet gun in the other. Breedlove, 17, was shot by a store clerk as he tried to rob the place. Police say he was the ringleader in a string of robberies at that store - and possibly others. This time, he is believed to have wanted the money to pay his rent.

"Derrick wasn't like a lot of the young hoppers you see on the street. He was mannerly; he never gave anyone lip," said Deanna Fleming, chairwoman of Fleming Community Center's after-school program in Turners Station. "But," she added quickly, "you don't know what's inside somebody, their heart, their mind. I look at him like this - he paid the consequences.

"Little kids were coming into the center crying. In their own way, they knew that Derrick symbolized a ticket out of Turners. In a way, he let the children down too."

The question "Why?" could be heard in all corners yesterday. In the corridors of school. At his stepfather's World War II-era townhouse. At Hampton University in Virginia, where Breedlove had a scholarship come fall. At the Village Market on Avondale Road North, where Breedlove stopped in about four times a week. Even at Modern Discount Liquors, where a makeshift shrine of flowers, candles and mementos went up in a vacant lot across the street from the entrance.

But as they grappled with the teen's death, there was little talk among relatives or other adults who knew him about Breedlove being a victim or being misunderstood. Instead, there was talk of mistakes and missed opportunities.

"A bad decision cost him his life and all the promise that his life held," said state probation agent Corey Pack, a longtime family friend who played football with Derrick's stepfather at Dundalk High. He called Breedlove a "man-child, someone who had the body of a man but the decision-making of a boy."

"Although I cannot condone his actions at the liquor store, I don't want him to be thought of as a monster," said Dundalk football coach Eric Webber. "Most of the time you can live with the choices you make. This time a kid died because of a bad choice he made. I'll never understand why Derrick did what he did, but I mourn his loss because I loved him."

Breedlove was being raised by his stepfather, Derrick Shelton, who is also raising two other children, a 7-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. His mother left Turners Station a long time ago. Father and son had been at odds in recent months - Shelton tried to set house rules, such as giving the 17-year-old a curfew, and the pair butted heads, Pack said.

Over the Christmas holiday, Breedlove moved out. First he went to live with an aunt. Then his mother, in West Baltimore. He recently moved to Essex, where he lived with a friend, sharing an apartment and expenses.

Breedlove worked at the McDonald's on Dundalk Avenue but quit recently. He told people there that he had another job. Workers at the restaurant declined to comment yesterday.

Breedlove robbed Modern Discount Liquors twice in February, brandishing a sawed-off shotgun each time, police allege. Both of those robberies occurred during school hours. Once he allegedly wore a red-and-blue ski mask. The other time, a black wig. On Wednesday he wore a camouflage floppy hat. A total of $2,645 was taken in the first two robberies; he is alleged to have stuffed the bills into his book bag. He is a suspect in another armed robbery.

Shelton has been struggling to piece together the story of his stepson's last days. "Each hour, I grow more and more frustrated," said Shelton, a supervisor at Dap, Inc., a caulking and sealant manufacturer on North Point Road, where he has worked for 13 years.

At Dundalk High, groups of students and teachers gathered to talk through their grief, to reconcile the Derrick Breedlove they knew with the Derrick Breedlove they heard about on the late-night news.

"He's being portrayed as a hardened criminal. I knew him as a friend," said Rachel Nixon, a sophomore who was in a creative writing class with Breedlove. "I saw him as a boy who may have looked hard, but you could see a portrait of somebody who was going to succeed. You would just have to see his smile. It was so sweet."

The students cried. They laughed. They held a brainstorming session where they wrote down their feelings.

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